How I came to be buying a condom in a Hilton hotel across the street from LAX is a meandering tale of impulsive decisions and their consequences, tragic or comic. In the late 70s, I graduated from college with a degree in linguistics. I had no particular plans for being any kind of linguist, but chose linguistics instead of English on the vague assumption that somehow there were more jobs available to someone with a linguistics degree. Not knowing a thing about the discipline other than the name, I was completely surprised by the course content, which was much more technical and scientific than anything I associated with the study of language. But then, that was probably more practical, wasn’t it? So I decided, all right then, I’ll learn to slice and dice language 18 different ways.
I studied phonetics, morphology, theories of grammar and deep structure, and historical and social linguistics. We studied language acquisition using examples of feral and abused children. We learned to reconstruct dead languages and rescue dying languages from oblivion. We studied the use of metaphor and ellipsis and how that revealed power relationships, and the text we used was the Watergate tapes. I learned to program the department computer, a dinosaur about the size of a small refrigerator with a row of switches you could flip to ones and zeros, in case you didn’t feel like using the teletype. A graduate student and I wrote a program to sample and add together sound waves. I mapped verb forms of a dying Northwest Indian language based on a dictionary compiled in the 19th century by a missionary. I was a pretty smart undergraduate.
I finished college and moved out of my Berkeley apartment and back to my mom’s house in San Francisco. I was done with Berkeley. It’s a great place, but there is something in me that needs the urban diversity of San Francisco more than the youthful energy of Berkeley. I was tired of the young and brilliant.
Mom’s tended to be an easygoing household. My friends and I would sit around with my mom and sip wine on the weekends. I didn’t mind going home for a while. I needed to take stock. I had no idea what you did after graduating from college. I knew by then that I didn’t want to be in linguistics. I was meant to go to graduate school, but in what? I figured I would take 6 months or a year to think about it. When it came to my future, I foundered, not because I had no talents or interests—I had enough of those to confuse the hell out of me—but because I still had no idea how life was done.
One evening four days after my last final, after everyone had gone to bed, I walked to a local bar for cigarettes. Once there, I decided to have a beer. The bar being refreshingly not a Berkeley student bar. I got to talking with a boy around my age, drinking slow. The bar did not stay open late on weeknights, so we grabbed a few beers and went and drank them at the beach, sitting on some rocks on the spit of land that makes up one side of the Golden Gate, around the corner from the bridge.
I’ve wondered many time since then how defective my judgment was that night. I tend to trust people and I was feeling pretty confident that night. The guy was a perfect gentleman and not an academic, activist, poet or any of the intellectual cream I was used to associating with. Still drinking slowly, we watched the waves for an hour. Then, around two in the morning, I said I had to go home. He graciously helped me down the rocks and we walked to the car.
We now know from studies that you can be impaired without appearing drunk. In those days and in the context of college drinking, we were not drunk. We could walk straight, see, speak without slurring and in general, maintain. I had no hesitation about getting in a car with that boy because he was not, as we judged it then, drunk. If that wasn’t risky enough, we never wore seat belts. Back in those days, most cars didn’t have shoulder belts. You had a choice. Wear your lap belt and hit the dash in an accident, or don’t wear it and hit the windshield. Mostly, we didn’t bother.
We drove through the Presidio, the stunningly scenic military base in San Francisco, toward my house. We went the wrong way, probably due to my directions. Was he looking for a street sign? For whatever reason, he drove through a stop sign. A cop saw him and turned on his light. This guy, the perfect gentleman who had not even made a pass at me though we sat alone on the beach drinking for an hour, decided to run from the cop. I have an elusive memory of great fear. I love speed, but not through the unpredictable streets of San Francisco. I did not want to scream or argue, because I was afraid that would cause us to crash. I remember saying hopefully, “I think you lost him,” and the guy answering, “No, there he is.” That’s the last thing I remember.
I came to in a hospital bed. I was aware of intense, existence-defining pain before I was fully awake. The pain was the reality around which everything else—the bed, the room, the nurses—was organized. My brain was not working right. I don’t remember at what point I knew I had been in an accident, of my skull fractures, the black eye, but I do remember being asked my name and who the president was. I was annoyed to have to keep repeating this information. I also remember being told that I could not have any pain pills, because the doctor wouldn’t know if I was groggy from medication or brain damage. I could not eat because it hurt to chew.
After three days, I was sent home. Whatever could have happened to my brain didn’t happen and there was nothing more the doctors could do. My right eye was black halfway down my cheek. My hair was shaved back into a peninsula on the right, a receding hairline framing the stitches that ran from my eyebrow to my scalp. I looked like the bride of Frankenstein.
A week or so after I got home, I remembered with something like wonder that I had finished college. I remembered that I had a degree in linguistics. But I was back to square one—I didn’t know what linguistics was. It was erased. That depressed me. I could not read, because I could not remember the beginning of a sentence by the time I reached the end. It would be several months before I remembered what I had been doing before I got hurt. Folks at my volunteer job wondered where I had gone, I had vanished so completely from the Berkeley scene. It took a year for the headaches to stop completely, and I was prone to fatigue. Graduate school, even as a concept, was off the table.
I needed to do something with myself, but I had no clue what. Six months or so after the accident, my mom needed a set of tires. I went with her to the nearest tire store, a Firestone. We bought her tires. I was still in that passive, post-trauma state where I let people make decisions for me. The Firestone store had a sign in the window: they were looking for a part-time clerk. As she paid for the tires, my mother suggested me. The manager was agreeable. I went to work for Firestone.
At first, I did paperwork for a few hours a week. I got along well with the manager and the mechanics. I was smart. The manager, Bill, asked me if I wanted to sell tires. I said, sure. He was an extravert and a natural mentor, and seemed immune to the sexism that you would expect in the all-male automotive business back then. After a while, I became a full-time sales person. I was pretty good, and selling tires is not rocket science. In time, I became a passable service writer as well. There was something very grown up about having a working class job selling tires and tune-ups. Instead of writing papers, working on the Chicano literary newsletter and protesting in Sproul Hall, I measured tire tread, drove around town in a 3/4 ton pickup with a broken air compressor in the back, and gave orders to mechanics.
My old college radical friends, when I ran into them, were not impressed with my job. The working class was all well and good, but you didn’t want to be one. Still, I liked it.
Bill then suggested taking the next step, becoming the store assistant manager. The store opened at 7:00 a.m. and closed at 6:00 p.m. and he’d been running it by himself for a while. I was reliable; I needed to start sharing the opening and closing responsibilities. If I became the assistant manager, Bill could take Saturday off, which would please his stunning wife, Linda, a former model. I asked Bill more than once how a grease-monkey like him managed to land a wife like Linda. Linda wanted him home more, and I was to pick up the slack.
And that is how I ended up in City of Commerce, California, for a week-long Firestone assistant manager training course for sales employees in the western states. Staying in a hotel alone for the first time in my life, on the first business trip of my life, was pretty exciting, but I was surprised to find myself a curiosity to the other assistant-manager trainees. I was no Linda, but I was the cutest—and only—girl in the training course. I found myself in conversation with the guys in the class, one after another. I would make friends with a guy only to find that he didn’t want to hang out the next day. Someone else did, though. Apparently, they had organized themselves to take turns, having a gentle competition to see which of them I would select.
I gravitated toward Tim, an older and socially smooth man from Arizona. I remember an afternoon by the hotel pool, flirting with all of them, and finding Tim’s body especially nice. Some time later, we kissed. By the end of the week, it was clearly me and Tim. Then the course was over and it was time to go home, me to San Francisco and Tim to Prescott. We talked about staying in touch. He asked me to spend a day or two with him in Commerce after the course, but I was reluctant. I barely knew the guy, and I have, until very recently, been skittish about committing to spend time with people.
We met the other guys for the ride to the airport and went for a drink together as planned. Tim looked good to me and I wondered if I had made a mistake not agreeing to stay. Not long after we sat down at the airport bar, the other guys vanished, one after the other, making quick excuses. I was astonished. This was my first exposure to the phenomenon of guys cooperating, rather than competing, to get one of them laid. When the last of the tire boys was gone, Tim said, “There’s a hotel across the street from the airport. We can walk there. I’ll ask you one more time—stay with me.”
Now I wanted to. But I said, “We can’t. We’ve checked our luggage. We don’t have anything.”
Tim, older and more experienced, said, “You can get whatever you need from the hotel. They a drugstore.”
I gave in. We told the airlines we would not be flying that day. Our luggage gone, we started walking to the hotel. On the way, we discussed what we needed. Just toothbrushes, some toothpaste and deodorant.
“And a condom,” I said. I felt very, very grown up. I had lived with a guy; I had finished college, where I had an affair with my professor; but I had never discussed condoms with a man before. Condoms were what you used in an emergency, when you didn’t have your diaphragm or weren’t on the Pill. Condoms were a worldly thing to do. I felt every bit of it.
We were able to get a room at the Hilton. After grabbing the key, we went directly to the drugstore off the lobby to get what we needed. I reminded Tim to ask the guy for a package of condoms. The man had to do that—ask for the condom—because in those days, they were kept behind the counter to prevent the underaged from buying them.
One of the features of travel back in those days, and until the early 90s, was the ubiquity of Japanese tour groups. A group of Japanese girls came into the drugstore as we shopped, wandering around singly and making selections. Tim and I took our toothbrushes up to the counter. The clerk was a woman. She began ringing our purchases up. Tim glanced nervously around. He was the only man in the store with a dozen women.
“Will that be all?” the clerk asked politely. I waited for Tim to speak. He froze. I stared at him. What was wrong with him? Could he really not ask a woman for a condom?
I mustered my most sophisticated, nonchalant look and said, “May we have some condoms, please?”
She raised an eyebrow. “Some what?”
Damn, this was going to be harder than I thought. Embarrassed, I said, “Um, prophylactics.”
She said, “Huh?”
Exasperated, I said, “You know, rubbers.”
“Oh, you want rubbers!” She smiled. “Which kind?”
“There are kinds?” I quickly ran out of sophistication.
“Oh, there are lots of kinds!” she said enthusiastically. She pulled up an 18 inch by 2 foot display board from behind the counter and propped it by the register. Stapled to the board were a dozen and a half packages of condoms. She pointed, “This is regular, this is large, this one is ribbed, this is lambskin, this is ultra thin, this has a receptacle tip, this is ultra-thin with a receptacle tip, these come in colors...”
Tim had backed away, as if to indicate that he was not involved in this transaction. But I had company. A half dozen Japanese girls had gathered around, as clearly there was a sex-ed lecture with visual aids going on. Some American thing. They didn’t want to miss it. There was pointing and nodding, and commentary in Japanese.
“Can I get lambskin with a receptacle tip?” I could play this.
“No, they don’t have that. They make them from...,” she frowned, thinking.
“Lambs?” I said.
Her face brightened, “They make them from lambs. This one here has the receptacle tip.”
I got my receptacle tip and paid. Outside the store, a red-faced Tim sighed comically and whispered, “My hero!” We had great sex. His shyness stopping at buying a condom from a friendly female store clerk.